This diary entry shares Navjeet’s personal experience with working on our Ukraine Refugee Sports Project.
22 April 2022.
Room 13 is what has stuck with me since returning from Przemysl in Poland which is less than 10 miles from the Polish-Ukrainian border. I was born on the 13th December and have always expressed counter narrative to the number 13, saying ‘lucky for everyone!’ When I saw the brown cardboard sign with 13 written on it, an arrow pointing to the right, stuck with tape to the wall, it did not feel ‘lucky for everyone’. Room 13 is a large room, approximately 80 by 100 metres in an old Tesco building that has been converted into a refugee camp aiding people escaping the war in Ukraine. To one side it has 200 camp beds set up with letters and numbers to mark row and bed and on the other side are desks set up to collect toiletries and bedding for adults and children. Volunteers (on rotation) from all around the world speaking several languages, remain organised and the precise amount of upbeat, enough to be welcoming, but sensitive enough to remember why we are here. For a large, converted shop floor, it is warm but clinical and I wondered what every person sleeping in those beds thought when they closed their eyes for the night. I closed my eyes while stood in room 13. I thought of home.
The refugee camp was set up a month ago, as the war started and thousands of people began crossing the border into Poland, leaving their homes, their jobs, their belongings, their loved ones, and their lives to…I cannot finish that sentence. Being forced to leave their lives as they knew them and find a safe place to exist is the only way to describe it. They arrive at the camp, some in their cars, which are then abandoned, and some by a coach, which is ferrying people from the local train station. They are mostly women and children with the men staying home to fight in the war. The women look tired and alert at the same time, and this emotional vigilance keeps them moving, avoiding dwelling on what surrounds them.
The day we arrive, four Change Foundation colleagues and I switch on our mobiles as we land at Rzeszow airport. News stories flood our phones telling us that there have been five missile strikes on Lviv and “the consequences are being clarified.” Lviv is a city in western Ukraine, around 70 kilometres from the border of Poland. We learn that so far six people have been killed and a further eight have been injured including children. We all get further messages from loved ones, checking we are ok. Of course, we were fine, quite a distance away but it showed how frightening war and conflict can be in that moment and how a clash of understanding and interests, causing destruction and injustice, leading to loss of peace, can feel enormous creating fear and anxiety inside us. Our families did not need to worry, but we were entering unknown territory, so survival instincts kick in and suddenly it became real, we were here because of a war affecting millions of innocent people.
We drive to Medyka, a small town which sits just over the Ukraine border that acts as a primary crossing point for refugees, where an estimated 2 million people have arrived fleeing their lives in Ukraine to decide what to do. It is the busiest crossing point for those escaping the war. Aid agencies have set up a camp with immediate relief, food, clothing and shelter, and the town is providing refuge while the Ukrainian people arrive, take a breath, a moment to think and reflect before they move onto other cities in Poland and beyond.
The refugee camp in Przemysl, is doing the same, a few miles from the border. Countries such as Germany, Finland, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, and Britain are providing support to take in refugees, each with their own process, system, and structure. I speak with a volunteer from Ireland; he has not slept very well for a few days. He is frustrated and agitated by the lack of infrastructure support at the camp. It is being run purely by volunteers who spend every waking moment to help refugees find safety. We hear that the rules have in that moment changed and that the biometric passport restrictions have been lifted in Poland. I ask them what’s going on? They tell me “We’ve had a breakthrough; this will make it easier for so many people.”
We get to work straight away after registering as volunteers and collecting our wristbands allowing us into the camp. We walk straight into the camp and my determined temperament disappears. I feel invasive. You cannot ignore the smell as you enter, like a hospital but the two distinct combinations of food and disinfectant carry right through the camp. We walk around to understand the layout. As expected, lots of women and children. The first section of the camp I see worried, sad, tired faces, trying to get answers on what they need to do as they wait as a family. I see one family sitting on a sofa bed, their few belongings placed next to them, the children leaning into the parents, and they sit there and wait…and then wait some more.
We walk further in, and children are running around playing. There is a creche that has been set up with activities by the hour until the evening and the place is flooded with toys. What a contrast to a few meters back. The children are chatting with one another and making bonds and connections quickly, it is amazing. The parents are close by, thinking, planning, and hoping.
Further in the corner World Central Kitchen host a part canteen and part coffee shop style area, where they are providing chef-prepared meals for everyone, volunteers, and refugees alike. Around this area are more rooms with camp beds and sleeping facilities. They are smaller than room 13 and people in them have got to know one another. Ukraine flags drape the doorways, and as I walk past the rooms and glance in, people that catch my eye smile at me, at that moment I begin to ease and I smile back, and now and again I wave a little, it felt ok to do so.
Towards the end of the circuit of the camp the slightly older children and young people congregate, incredibly well behaved and keeping themselves entertained, as best as they can. One young girl noticed my nails, I had painted them yellow and blue. She had set up a little table where she was doing other people’s nails, with amazing skill I must say. I am not sure why I did this, but I had bought with me yellow and blue nail varnish, remover, and nail art patterns. I guess I had envisaged doing each other’s nails to break down a communication and language barrier, imagining us bonding for that moment while we took a moment to be…well…us. I gave them to her, and she received them with so much delight, I just could not understand. She was grateful to me? I wanted to hug her forever. A little over the top I know, but it is how I felt.
Once we understood the structure of the camp, we set up a small football pitch outside, 50 meters in front of the camp entrance on a patch of grass, which was covered with litter and dog poo. We cleared it best we could. We were ready to engage the children and young people, even the parents, we just needed to invite them along and introduce ourselves. Google translate became our best friend and we also wrote on blue and yellow cards ‘Would you like to play in a football tournament outside?’ Along with our best sports actions, we walked through the camp recruiting young people, explaining to their parents who we were and our credentials to run a safe tournament for their children. Some said no, but many said yes. Throughout the day, we rotated in this way, recruiting children and young people, getting to know the families and volunteers and our Change Foundation uniform becoming a reference point for sports, activities, and a great deal of fun. What a privilege to be recognised in this way among the environment we all found ourselves in.
I thought the kids that were playing would never stop. It was nostalgic, parents came to shout for their children to stop for lunch, the kids would eat quickly and return as soon as possible, and the day just got more creative and competitive as it went on. Huge respect to the local police who played the siren every time a child or young person scored a goal. Extraordinary, it felt so satisfying.
We were there for three days, and we became recognised and soon volunteers were referring young people over to us too. The football turned into different games that the children were creating themselves. One young boy, who I called ‘Coach,’ completely took over and was running the session. He was understanding and organised and blowing my mind entirely. Throughout the day he had made a friend and they functioned as though they had been friends for life, the last two on the pitch at the end of the day. We watched the boys as the day ended and they both said goodbye to each other. Coach was staying at the camp and his new friend was getting on a coach, with a journey that would eventually take him to Germany. I forgot how resilient children can be, they were sad, but they had to go. Coach said to us on google translate, ‘football tomorrow?’ It was our last day, and we would not see him again. He nodded and said thank you and walked back to camp. My throat dried up and my eyes filled, I turned to pack the kit, alone to compose myself.
While at the camp we connected with a number of volunteers working in hostels in neighbouring towns. They asked if we could run sessions in the hostels and if we could travel with them one afternoon to deliver a Pilates session for the mothers and something for the children. Refugees staying in the hostels were full of mothers and children who wanted to stay near the border, to stay close in case they could return home sooner rather than later. This hostel was an old, converted school. We were welcomed into a busy space with families moving around the hostel back and forth from their rooms to the communal social spaces. I could not help but notice how quiet it was, a house full of children and none making noise.
We were taken into a play space which was covered with toys and a volunteer in the corner sometimes making balloon animals and sometimes playing the guitar. The children were mesmerised by him and the parents so happy to see the looks on their children’s faces as they received their balloon animal. The man tells us he has been asked not to play songs from Ukraine as it may have further psychological effects or retraumatise. I thought of my own family, growing up with Punjabi songs in our home in London with my elder’s regaling stories of India and how it always ended emotionally, sometimes with feelings of regret, sometimes with feelings of pride, sometime both. I understood, it was too soon, whatever that meant.
Word had spread around the hostel, dance class with The Change Foundation at 4.30pm! I cleared the room as we set the little speaker up and prepared a space. As soon as the time came, we played the music and began, slowly the children started to join in, girls’ boys, teenagers, little ones, they all came. The room filled with noise, laughter, cheering, singing, and screaming. In coaching terms, a typical sign that the session was going well. A triumph. We delivered a little cool down to Adele’s ‘Easy on Me’ and every woman in the room that knew it sang in unison, her music, the ultimate connector of emotion for people all over the world, we have all been there, we say to each other.
The children and young people hugged us, wanted us to stay, stood around with us. I met a young girl who is not only a tattooist, a singer, and an artist. What a talent! She promised she would start uploading her YouTube videos soon. I looked into her eyes, full of hope and humility and I thought about how she was trying to launch a career while living in a hostel, in a life of uncertainty, with no networks or connections. She is exquisite, whatever she ends up doing and wherever life will take her. I hope the world keeps her safe I thought to myself.
We left, reluctantly, as the children were called for dinner. We hugged the volunteers and they explained how much we were needed. I understood and I agreed, we were. The relief, the moments of support, the activities that are fun and subtle, the human connections, the unity, the sisterhood, it is all needed. We drove back in silence.
Our last stop was dropping off sweets at the main train station near where we were staying. The scenes were something like out of a film, a grand and beautiful station full of people with looks of uncertainty, organised chaos, people waiting, families holding on to one another, children crying, volunteers providing support, showing human kindness against a backdrop of the evils of war. I just stood in the middle in a daze wondering about my surreal reality. The tuck shop in the station took the sweets and immediately handed them out, the man behind the desk said thank you in English and I replied dziękuję in Polish, we smiled at one another, and I walked back through the people to the exit.
In three days, we worked with approximately one hundred children and young people and about 40 parents. We may or may not see them again, and we have no idea how their lives will unfold in the coming months. But what we do know is that we impacted one another in that moment for which the effects will make themselves known in the future. Neither of us asked to be there, but there we were. I knew I would be returning with a clear plan of how to help next time, it is what needs to be done right now and we have much to give as a charity. But as for me, I walked into my house after driving back from Luton airport, I stood in my living room confused as to what to do. I was not hungry, and I was not tired, and I just kept thinking of what to do next that was of some value. I could not just get on with life, could I? I had to wait until the next planned trip. Wait for the team to regroup and schedule our project. Just wait. I thought of all the refugees waiting in the camp, for their next schedule and plan, they were calm with thoughts of their loved ones. So, I dropped my bag, closed my eyes for a second and did what you do when you feel disconnected, I took my phone out of my pocket, “Hi mum, I’m home.”